Reclusive Eels Frontman Finally Leaves House, Brings Guitars With Him
30 Mar 2002: Metro Chicago
It’s doubtful that Mark Everett had any idea what the song “Fittin’ in with the Misfits”, from his solo debut A Man Called (E), was going to do for him—or, to put it another way, to him. By the time he had two solo albums under his belt and had formed a new band the Eels, he had become lord of the Land of Misfit Music Fans. This seems to have done him both good and bad. The good part is that he has a fiercely devoted, if small, following. The bad part is if you’re DreamWorks, and trying to sell records by this guy with the fiercely devoted, IF SMALL, following. Growing a mountainous beard, wearing blue blockers and sporting an uncanny resemblance to the Unabomber isn’t going to help matters much, either. Kudos to DreamWorks, though, for not making him change the album cover in these sensitive times.
To complicate matters ever so slightly, consider the two-year period in which E lost his mother to cancer and his sister to suicide. It took two albums, 1998’s brutally dark Electro-Shock Blues and 2000’s light-but-disturbing Daisies of the Galaxy, for E to get the majority of the trauma out of his system. But it seems he not only survived, but also came out of it even stronger, just like the saying goes. The band’s newest, Souljacker, might be their best yet. It’s loose, raunchy and a little weird, but engrossing and fun as well. Their show at the Metro was their first visit in ages (they canceled their date during the Electro-Shock tour, E was still grieving heavily). The misfit music fans were not disappointed, though I’m betting they were incredibly surprised at how much the Eels actually rawked live.
The entire evening had E’s stamp of oddball sense of humor, starting with the pre-show music. Songs include Jim Nabors’ cover of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine Of My Life”, the “William Tell Overture” sung with yodeling, and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je T’aime Moi Non Plus”, otherwise known as “The Orgasm Song”. When the music fades, the opening act takes the stage:
Yes, a mime, the most anti-rock and roll artist imaginable. He does bits involving walls, wind, and a dog. The very fact that the audience was dead quiet and watching him with rapt attention was actually one of the strangest things I’ve ever witnessed at a rock concert.
The Eels hit the stage a short time later, and open with that raise-the-rafters arena rock classic “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor”. A ballad roughly a minute or so long, its last words are “My name’s Elizabeth / My life is shit and piss.” It’s like the Doors opening with “The End”—it’s the last song in the Eels catalog that should open a show. E, of course, knows this, and to show what a perverse sense of humor he has, opens with it. Immediately after it’s over, he stuns the crowd with a wild cover of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On”. Who knew E was a B-boy?
The goings from there were only slightly more typical. “Dog Faced Boy” stayed pretty close to the original. E’s voice live sounds identical to his records, and guitarist John Parish gets to show off some of that Adrian Belew-ish virtuosity, while his onstage moves are not unlike Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett. One-named drummer Butch flexed his percussion skills on the samba-meets-surf “That’s Not Really Funny”. E then slid behind his tiny keyboard and played the lovely ballad about being away from his loved one, which has the unfortunate title of “It’s a Motherfucker”. The crowd roared when he sang the title line.
“Souljacker Part I”, one of the highlights on the new album, was drawn out considerably live, with E letting a distorted guitar blast, right before the last verse, reverberate untouched for a good two minutes. The band stood patiently, Butch keeping his maraca-driven beat, while E stood shoe gazing until he felt it was time to finish the song. Two minutes may not seem like much, but when no one is moving onstage, it’s an eternity. They did something very similar on “Not Ready Yet”, from their debut Beautiful Freak, though Butch and Parish were allowed to jam a bit this time around. Still, both songs were much longer and much more aggressive live.
Nearly everything in the set was turned up to 11. “Fresh Feeling”, a string-drenched mid-tempo number on Souljacker, was nothing but guitars in concert. Ditto “I Like Birds” and “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues”, which was stripped of its Beck-ish cut and paste beats and instead blown up big. While it’s commendable when bands experiment with arrangements and try new things with old songs, it seemed all E really wanted to do was rock, even if it meant doing so at the expense of the song in question. He did leave some songs alone, like “World of S#!t”, and “Woman Driving Man Sleeping”, and doing so made me wish he had left some other songs alone, too.
They came out for a second encore, and Butch sang a happy little ditty called “I Am a Sad Clown”. E joked (yes, he actually joked) that Butch was putting together a solo album with songwriters Glen Ballard, Desmond Child, Diane Warren and David Foster. The band then played “3 Speed” and “I Write the B-Sides”, from the bonus CD that currently comes with Souljacker, and called it a night.
Or so we thought. As the lights went up and people were filing out, Butch (who just might be the most underrated drummer in rock) jumped back onstage and started playing again, getting the crowd to do some call-and-answer bits like “Hey”, “Ho”, and “Shut the fuck up”. He then starts singing, completely monotone, “Novocaine for the Soul”, the band’s biggest and, technically, only hit. Those who left early were surely scratching their heads over why the band never played that one. After that, the rest of the band came back out yet again, and did a lounge version of “Dog Faced Boy”, with the lights still up.
The Eels definitely gave the audience their money’s worth in terms of a lengthy set list and some pleasant surprises. However, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if E just left well enough alone once in a while.